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Debate over whether local uranium enrichment plant could lead to nuclear proliferation intensifies

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Global Laser Enrichment, a subsidiary of GE-Hitachi, will wait a few more weeks for a decision on a 40-year license to build and operate the first laser-based uranium enrichment plant in the world. 

While the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board takes more time to consider green-lighting the project, a new coalition of scientists and nuclear experts is coming forward with concerns.   WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn reports the group – made up of 19 scientific and nuclear non-proliferation organizations -- is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withhold any license until a formal risk assessment is done. 

The technology in question has been in development for more than half a century. Global Laser Enrichment, or GLE, in Castle Hayne has refined a process that uses lasers to enrich uranium – creating fuel for nuclear power plants. 

“And it uses a novel technology that is very well-suited for rapid, clandestine production of nuclear weapons.” 

That’s Dr. Scott Kemp. He’s assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT and an associate research scholar at Princeton University.

“The technology hasn’t been used to make nuclear weapons in the past, but we know from its physical properties that it has this capability… But no country has managed to get it to work on an economic basis or even on a practical basis because of particular technical challenges.  Now, finally, it seems those technical challenges have been solved.”  

Kemp recently published an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that cites several scientific organizations, two congressmen and a former director of a nuclear lab calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to perform a proliferation risk assessment before issuing GLE a license.  

“So far the NRC has basically said that it has no statutory obligation to look at this potential risk.  It has only been concerned with the environment and whether the plant is properly licensed and whether there are safety protocols and so forth.  But it does not consider the implications for our national security.” 

Two weeks ago, a new group of scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, anti-proliferation groups, and other nuclear experts coalesced around the issue again – citing Dr. Kemp’s article, expressing grave concern and calling on the NRC to perform a risk assessment.  Licensing technology for laser enrichment of uranium, says the group, poses a serious threat to national security.    

But not every nuclear expert thinks commercializing this technology would cause global instability.  Dr. Donald Kerr is former Director of Los Alamos National Labs, former Deputy Director of the CIA and assistant Director of the FBI.  He was part of a small group GE asked to review how well the company was protecting the security of its program.

“Our review indicated that they were handling that very well.  There’s no surprise in that GE operates other nuclear facilities – including one in Wilmington -- and has been part of such activities since they began in the 40s.  So, clearly management and the workforce over a long, long period have understood how to do these things.” 

The fact that GLE paid for that review raises questions about its objectivity in some circles. Dr. Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.    

“GE will want to make a profit and build a plant and sell its technology and that’s what they get paid to do, the managers.  But it’s really up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take this problem much more seriously than it has.”

There are significant obstacles that come with this technology that some scientists aren’t taking into account, says Dr. Donald Kerr.  And those obstacles will prevent smaller, rogue nations or terrorists from acquiring the secrets of the process and putting them into use. 

“GE is one of the few organizations in this country that can bring together all of the various technical experts in different disciplines necessary to make such a plant work.  And that in itself is a barrier to entry.  Elsewhere in the world where you don’t have similar capabilities and financial resources that GE was able to bring to the project.”

But the days are gone, says Dr. Makhijani, when nuclear technology was considered the rich man’s weapon. 

“North Korea of course being exhibit A.  North Korea is a poor country with a lot of starving people and a terrible dictatorship but they have nuclear bombs.  They may not function very well but nuclear bombs don’t have to function very well to be terrible weapons.”

Both Dr. Kerr and the NRC say a risk assessment is not within the purview of the NRC.  Kerr says the responsibility lies with the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the FBI -- agencies that are very familiar with the nature of proliferation, protection of technology and materials, and the behavior of those involved.

“And I think people are not paying attention to the noteworthy capabilities that the FBI and others have.  Just for the purpose of keeping track of those who would try to infiltrate and take on trying to find protected technology wherever it might be in the U.S.    They do a very good job of that.”  

And with many millions invested in the development of the technology, GE-Hitachi is intensely interested in protecting it, says GE-Hitachi spokesman Christopher White. 

“We share the scientists’ concerns about proliferation.  No one wants to keep this technology more secure than General Electric.  It’s our intellectual property and it’s the security of our country.” 

At this point, there is no public record of a proliferation risk assessment having been conducted -- with the exception of GE’s own review.  According to Princeton’s Dr. Kemp, the NRC often cites a 1999 assessment done by the State Department.  But that assessment, says Kemp, doesn’t address the current implications of commercializing the technology in the United States. 

Once the license is granted, now slated for the end of September, GLE officials must still decide whether it will move forward with the project.  Company spokesman Christopher White says no decision has yet been made. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.